Florida court ruling may spare scores on death row from execution

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court cleared the way on Friday for scores of death row inmates to receive new sentencing hearings, while denying such relief in older cases, in a set of rulings likely to fuel the U.S. debate about fairness in capital punishment.

The fate of 384 inmates on Florida's death row, the nation's second largest, has been uncertain since the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down the state's penalty sentencing laws.

The high court found that Florida gave judges powers that juries should wield in determining death eligibility. The ruling left open what should happen to inmates previously sentenced.

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Notable death penalty executions and people on death row
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Notable death penalty executions and people on death row
Seated on his bunk in the death cell of Iberia Parish Courthouse, convinced that 'The Lord is Still with Me,' is Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who won a million-to-one chance of a reprieve from death when the electric chair failed to kill him, or even hurt him, at his scheduled execution on May 3. Sentenced to die for the murder of a St. Martinville druggist a year ago, Francis was strapped in the chair. The current was applied. The doomed man squirmed and jumped. But when the current was shut off, he was unharmed. 'It tickled a little,' he said. The state will try again to carry out the execution on Thursday May 9th.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

This is John Wayne Gacy's police arrest photo from Dec. 21, 1978. Following intensive research, investigation and surveillance, Gacy was arrested by the Des Plaines (Ill.) Police Department on Thursday, Dec. 21, 1978. After being charged with and serving time for 33 murders, Gacy was executed in 1994 by lethal injection. Today, Monday, Nov. 23, 1998, technicians began preliminary work on a possible excavation at an apartment building on Chicago's Northwest Side in search of as many as four more possible victims of the mass murderer. The apartment building at one time, was the home of Gacy's mother, and Gacy had done some construction work there. The information regarding the location was recently released from a retired Chicago police officer who said he had seen Gacy carrying a shovel near the area at about 3 a.m. one day in 1975. The former officer reportedly thought little of the Gacy sighting until three years later, when Gacy was charged with 33 murders. The apartment building is about four miles away from Gacy's house.

(Des Plaines Police Department, Tim Boyle)

A portrait of mass murderer Ted Bundy, responsible for a string of murders in Washington state, Utah, and Florida in the 1970s. He was executed in in Florida on January 24, 1989. His actual victim count remains unknown.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Aileen Wuornos is shown in this undated photograph from the Florida Department of Corrections. Wournos was executed by lethal injection October 9, 2002 in Florida for murdering six men when she was a prostitute.

(Photo by Florida DOC/Getty Images)

Admitted mass-slayer Charles Starkweather is shown entering court for the second day of his trial for murder. Starkweather admitted killing 11 people and was executed in Nebraska on June 25, 1959. 

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is shown being escorted from the Noble County Courthouse as he is transported to Oklahoma City for arraignment in this April 22, 1995 file photo. On June 11, 2001, McVeigh was executed after being sentenced to death for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, a crime that took 168 lives and shook a complacent America to the core.

(Jim Bourg / Reuters)

Gary Gilmore, responsible for the shooting deaths of two men, was executed in Utah on January 17, 1977.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Media witnesses to the firing squad execution of John Albert Taylor examine the chair in which Taylor sat as he was shot to death at 12:03 a.m. Mountain time January 26 at the Unita State Penitentiary in Utah. The execution of Taylor was the first by firing squad in the United States since the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

(POOL New / Reuters)

Stanley 'Tookie Williams' was responsible for several murders and other crimes and was executed in California on December 13, 2005. Williams helped found the Crips gang, but was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang efforts. He authored such books as 'Life in Prison,' encouraging kids to stay out of gangs, and his memoir 'Blue Rage, Black Redemption'.'

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Teresa Lewis, convicted of murdering her husband and stepson, was executed in Virginia on September 23, 2010. She was the first woman executed in the state in nearly 100 years.

(REUTERS/Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout)

William Bonin (left), a 33-year-old truck driver and registered sex offender, was accused of the 'torture' murders of at least 13 and possibly 21 young males, suspected victims of the so called 'Freeway Killer. He was executed in California on February 23, 1996.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also said Vernon Butts (right) was an accomplice in at least six of the 21 murders.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for Boston Marathon bombing, was sentenced to death on May 15, 2015.

(Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist charged in a mass shooting at the U.S. Army post in Fort Hood, Texas, was sentenced to death on August 28, 2013.

(Ho New / Reuters)

Joseph E. Duncan III, a convicted murderer and sex offender, was sentenced to death on August 27, 2008.

 (Photo provided by Kootenai County Sheriff's Department via Getty Images)

Coy Wesbrook was executed in 2016. He fatally shot five people in 1997 with a hunting rifle in a killing spree launched when he found his ex-wife having sex with other men.

(REUTERS/Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters)

Dylann Roof, the man convicted of murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston was condemned to death by a federal jury on January 10, 2017.

(REUTERS/Charleston County Sheriff's Office/Handout)

Death row inmate Ricky Gray is shown in this undated photo released in Washington, DC, U.S. in 2016. Virginia Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Christopher Wilkins, 48, Texas death row inmate convicted of killing two people in a revenge plot after one had tricked him in a $20 drug deal, is shown in this undated photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S.. Courtesy Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
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The answer hinges on timing, Florida's Supreme Court found.

Death row inmates could see resentencing hearings if their cases were not finalized by 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling marking a precursor to its Florida decision.

Cases finalized before 2002 were not entitled to such relief, the state high court said in another ruling on Friday.

"Some people are going to live, and some are going to die, based on where they fall on a timeline," said Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation, based at Florida International University Law school in Miami.

While precise numbers were unknown, the court noted that just under half of current death row inmate's cases were final at the time of the high court ruling in Ring v. Arizona, which addressed death penalty sentencing.

The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center estimates that 75 to 100 inmates Florida should qualify for resentencing hearings. More than 200, however, would be denied by timing.

"Under these decisions, whether a Florida death row prisoner lives or dies doesn't depend on whether his or her trial was fair," said its executive director, Robert Dunham. "It depends on when the trial was unfair."

He said inmates with older cases could still seek recourse, with many death penalty issues still unresolved in Florida.

The state rewrote its death sentencing laws after the high court's ruling. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the new law in October because it does not require juries to unanimously recommend capital punishment.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office was reviewing Friday's rulings.

The decisions could allow the state to resume scheduling executions, which have been on hold in Florida for most of the year amid legal uncertainty.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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